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Where It All Began (for Me)
Bleeding Eagles Green
I suppose a bit of a personal introduction is in order before we get too deep into this thing. After all, it doesn't just happen that a little girl grows up in Philadelphia rooting for the Eagles, only to wind up marrying an Eagles quarterback. But that's the short version of how it happened for me.
Here's the (somewhat) longer version. My dad was a big-time football fan. It was his thing. It wasn't his only thing, mind you, but it was a big deal. Man, he loved his Eagles, and I grew to love them right alongside him. Again, it wasn't the only thing we shared, but it was something special.
My father's name was Matt Robinson, and he was an incredible writer. He wrote and produced a bunch of local television shows in Philadelphia, but he also commuted to New York for a lot of the time I was growing up. He wrote scripts for Sanford and Son, and The Waltons, and Eight Is Enough, and he wrote several children's books, plays, and screenplays. Later on, he was a writer and producer on The Cosby Show. But he was probably best known for creating the role of Gordon, which he played from 1969 to 1972 on the original Sesame Street. He still turns up from time to time in the repeat segments they sometimes air, with his big pork chop sideburns and bushy moustache. Could a 4-year-old have asked her daddy to have a cooler gig?
He's gone now, my dad, after a long, difficult bout with Parkinson's disease, but football is at the heart of my memories of him. It was our common ground. I watch his old Sesame Street tapes with my children and think about how it was when I was their age, when my dad first started hanging out with Oscar, Big Bird, and the rest of the gang--and when I first discovered Harold Carmichael and Norm Snead, who were two of the more popular Philadelphia Eagles players throughout my growing up. My dad had a pretty busy taping schedule up in New York as I recall, but he was around on weekends and we made the most of our time together. Sundays were our special time during football season. My brother and I would sit at his knee, watching the game on television. Plus, we loved to watch him roll over in laughter each draft day as he scouted the proceedings--not for the best players, mind you, but for the hippest, most unusual names of the latest crop of college stars. Remember William "The Refrigerator" Perry? Well, we knew all about him in our household even before he burst onto the NFL scene, thanks to my dad's love for crazy-cool football names. That was always one of his favorite things, to collect the wildest and most unique football names that crossed his radar. And as a special tribute, I'll present a list of some of his all-time favorites (plus a few new ones he would have loved) a bit later on in these pages.
My earliest football memory (to which I alluded earlier) is from when I was 5 or 6 years old and more interested in spending time with my father than in the game he was watching or the players on the field. The game itself was probably nothing more than background noise to me when I was that little. If you'd have asked me, I'd have told you Jim Ringo was a Beatle before I pegged him for an Eagle.
Anyway, one late fall afternoon, I heard the jangle of the Good Humor ice cream truck coming up the block in my Mount Airy neighborhood, and I started tugging on my father's shirt to get his attention at some crucial point in the game. All I cared about was a strawberry shortcake ice cream bar. All he cared about was a field goal the Eagles were attempting, to take the lead as time ran out on the clock. In an effort to hush me up for another beat or two, he turned to me and said, "Honey, if that kicker makes this field goal, you can get your strawberry shortcake."
I started cheering for Dad's Eagles right then and there, and from that moment on, I think I associated everything I ever wanted in life with an Eagles' victory. (I guess that explains a lot.) In any case, there was usually a strawberry shortcake ice cream bar to help us celebrate at the end of each win. We started watching games together every week during the season; and in the beginning, it really did have more to do with my love of ice cream than my love of football. Soon after that, it was more about hanging with my father than anything else; but after a while, the lines got blurred and I was hooked on the game. I loved the adrenaline rush of excitement that seemed to flow from that field, the artistry of the wide receivers, and the crunch of brute strength at the line. I loved the sheer thrill of an open field run. I wasn't the most sophisticated fan in the world right out of the gate, but my father was a patient teacher and I paid close attention. In time, I learned the basic rules, and eventually I was able to pick up a little strategy and subtlety. When I moved from Philly to L.A. at the age of 9, and years later when I left the house after high school, I still managed to follow the Eagles. They were my team by that point, and it didn't matter if I was away at school or studying for a year in Paris--whenever the Eagles were playing, I was doing my best to catch the game and cheer them on.
And then life just kinda happened. I caught my first big break in 1986 on a television show called 21 Jump Street for the upstart Fox Network, opposite a then-unknown Johnny Depp, and from there I managed to keep finding steady work. My mom, Dolores Robinson, already a prominent talent manager started managing my career--and she kept me busy and out there and happening. And all along, I kept my eye on my Eagles. My dad was a true die-hard fan, who counted it a real frustration whenever his team came up short. But I was turning out to be more of a die-easy fan (not quite sure if that's the opposite of die-hard, but you get the idea). If the Eagles managed to win a couple of games, that was just fine with me. If they managed to string together a successful season, even better. And if they lost a heartbreaker, I still treated myself to a strawberry shortcake ice cream bar at the other end. Why not? Life went on, pretty much as it would have if they had won the heartbreaker. Truth is, it wasn't always so easy to root for the Eagles; and if you ask any of today's fans, it hasn't gotten any easier--no matter how well they're playing. Anyway, I kept at it. I never lost faith. I figured if the Philadelphia Eagles could go to the trouble of suiting up and giving it their all each week, the least I could do was pull for them from my couch in L.A. or wherever I happened to be at the time.
In 1993, while I was shooting a sitcom called Hangin' with Mr. Cooper, I was introduced to a quarterback. His name was Rodney Peete, and he was something--good-looking, God-fearing, and more charming than any man had a right to be. Plus, he had a golden arm and a killer smile--in all, a totally winning package. He won me over in about the time it took to run a 2-minute offense. (Well, okay, maybe not that quick. There was a female friend--or 10!--I had to send into exile first, but that's for another book. . . .)
Rodney had been drafted by the Detroit Lions out of USC and had started on a promising career before the Lions cut him loose. He eventually wound up in Philadelphia, calling the plays for my beloved Eagles. I thought, "How cool is that?" Just think, to root for your hometown team as a star-struck little kid and to somehow wind up with the quarterback on your arm. Let me tell you, it was a fairy-tale wrapped inside a storybook wrapped inside a dream. I couldn't wait to introduce Rodney to my father--not least because he'd given me a lot of crap about the guys I'd been dating, and because short of Dr. J (Julius Erving, the Philly basketball legend who was a bit too old and a bit too married for me), I couldn't have brought home a more perfect guy than the new Eagles quarterback.
We got married in 1995, but I'll save the details of our courtship for our grandchildren and keep the focus on the football aspects of our time together. You see, for the longest while I'd thought of myself as a football fan; but now that I had met Rodney and listened in on his conversations with his friends and his teammates, I came to realize that I didn't know all that much about the game. Sure, I could recite the rules, identify most of the Eagles starting roster, and run about three or four deep into the rosters of our opponents, but that was about it. I didn't know from play-calling, or defensive schemes and formations, or West Coast offenses. And keeping up with Rodney was one thing; I also had to contend with his entire family. There was my father-in-law, Willie Peete, an assistant coach in the NFL from 1983 to 1999 for the Chiefs, Packers, Bucs, and Bears; my brother-in-law, Skip, currently the running-backs coach for the Oakland Raiders; and my mother-in-law, Edna, the coach's wife, the coach's mother, and the quarterback's mom! (Let me tell you, Edna has had to endure countless Peete vs. Peete matchups, and watching those games with her could be nerve-wracking, to say the very least.) I scrambled to keep up. At first, I was out of my element; but eventually I picked up a thing or two, and with that extra effort I was able to send Rodney the all- important message that what he was doing was all-important to me as well.
Most of the die-hard football fans in my acquaintance don't know the first thing about the game's origins. After all, in our lifetimes, there has always been football in one form or another. I grew up with the game in something very much like its present form. It was a part of our family scenery. Clearly, though, the game didn't drop fully realized into our laps. Like other sports, it evolved over a period of time, and a lot of folks suggest it grew from a game the Ancient Greeks used to play. The game was called harpaston, and--best anyone can tell--the object was to kick, throw, or run a ball across a goal line. Crossing that goal line was key despite the game's other objectives such as to lash, maim, or otherwise injure your opponent and to stand tall and proud in the face of such brutality.
This primitive version wasn't quite football as we know it--more like a distant cousin, once removed. There was no limit to the number of players allowed on each side, and there were no real rules to govern acceptable styles of play. It was a down-and-dirty, no-holds-barred, anything-goes contest, and there was more than a little bloodshed on those fields before the outcome of each game was decided.
And now, jumping ahead to my best football memory: 1995, wildcard playoff game, Eagles vs. Lions. Rodney's new team up against the team that let him go. My father couldn't have written a better script to set up this showdown. The Lions had just gone on an incredible late season run to win a play-off spot, and they came into the game as the heavy favorites, with all kinds of momentum. The talk in the press and all over Detroit was that the Lions were going to really take it to Rodney and the Eagles. But Rodney and the Eagles weren't having any of it. They came out like they were on a mission.
As it happened, Rodney's personal mission happened to coincide neatly with the team's objective: To win--big. You have to realize that whenever a player is cut or traded by a team, he really wants to stick it to them, to get his former employers to think they made a terrible mistake. And here Rodney felt he had something to prove. All week long leading up to the game, he kept hearing, "Oh, Rodney Peete can't do this," or "Rodney Peete can't do that," and it lit him up inside. So he came out and did this-and- that-and-then-some to those Lions. By the end of the first half, the Eagles were leading with a delicious score of 38-7, the icing on the cake coming from Rodney's "Hail Mary" pass that somehow wound up in the hands of one of his receivers in the end zone as time ran out. He ended up throwing for three touchdowns and over 300 yards, that's how fired up he was about this game.
Next day, I scoured the Internet for everything I could find in the Detroit papers about the game and about Rodney. I entered every Lions chat room I could find online and basked in everyone's misery. Evil as it makes me sound, I just loved it. Posts like "How could we let Peete destroy us?" absolutely made my day. Rodney had a play-off game with Dallas to worry about, but I reveled in that win over the Lions for the longest time, because those Detroit fans were so hurt by the loss. They were devastated, but it wasn't just the loss that got them going: It was the fact that they had been run ragged by a guy they had written off and sent packing. That was the strawberry shortcake ice cream bar for me.